State mask mandate ending

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Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced last Wednesday afternoon that the statewide indoor mask requirement will be lifted starting Feb. 28 – with some notable exceptions.

During a press conference in Chicago, Pritzker cited COVID-19 hospitalization rates “declining faster than any other point in the pandemic” in the state as a factor in the decision to officially remove the mandate. 

Per the CDC, Illinois leads the Midwest in people who have received at least one shot of COVID vaccine, with 75.7 percent having received a first dose as of last week. Illinois also has the most fully vaccinated ages 17-and-under population in the region.

Pritzker advised that federal masking regulations will still be in place until March 18 at the earliest. Federal rules dictate masks are to be worn while aboard public transportation, airplanes, trains and buses. Masks are also still required in “communal areas” of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes as well as indoor health care environments and congregate settings. 

Daycare centers will follow Department of Children and Family Services masking guidelines.

“I want to be clear: Many local jurisdictions, businesses and organizations have their own mask requirements and other mitigations that must be respected. Throughout this pandemic, we’ve deployed the tools available to us as needed. Our approach has saved lives and kept our economy open and growing,” Pritzker said.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said masks will still be recommended after Feb. 28 – especially for those most vulnerable to the virus.

“Masks offer a layer of protection and for people who have an underlying health condition or who are around those who do, you may choose to continue wearing a mask,” she said. “Similarly, if you find yourself in a crowded, indoor setting, a mask can still help protect you.” 

Masking in schools

A press release issued last Wednesday afternoon stated the governor planned on continuing mask mandates in schools “unless pending litigation impacts a school.”

Sangamon County Circuit Judge Raylene Grischow recently issued a temporary restraining order against nearly 170 school districts in Illinois requiring masks for students and staff. Waterloo, Columbia and Valmeyer were all named in the suit filed by parents. This ruling is currently being appealed by the Illinois attorney general.

Per new policies implemented last week as a result of the TRO, Waterloo, Columbia and Valmeyer school districts are operating under a “mask optional” policy. 

All school districts warned this is subject to change pending appellate court decisions. 

Despite Pritzker’s remarks regarding upholding a school mask mandate last week, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative panel, voted Tuesday afternoon to suspend such mitigations for public schools. 

This is in response to IDPH filing to renew its emergency rules on this topic. The rules, filed last September, expire after 150 days. The rules technically expired Feb. 13. 

JCAR committee members cited Grischow’s TRO, its pending appeal and it not being clear if the rules would therefore only apply to school districts not listed in the lawsuit as reasons for the 9-0 vote. Two committee members voted “present” on the decision to suspend the rules.

State Senator Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) applauded JCAR’s decision. 

“Today the governor learned that no matter how big his ego may be, he is not the dictator of Illinois and is not above the rule of law,” Bryant said.

Pritzker’s plan to extend the mask mandate in schools, but not necessarily in other settings, did not sit well with Bryant. 

“The plan that the governor announced last week is the height of hypocrisy. Starting March 1, children will be able to go to the mall with their friends without a mask but aren’t allowed to sit in a desk six feet away from another student without putting on a mask,” she said. 

Rep. David Friess (R-Red Bud) weighed in on JCAR’s decision as well.

“Yesterday’s ruling was an unprecedented win for families and children in Illinois,” he said in a press release. “The Illinois Department of Public Health tried to keep our children masked despite the lack of evidence that masks do anything to prevent the spread of COVID.”

Prior to JCAR’s Tuesday decision, Friess said he was “disappointed” the governor was not planning on removing the mandate for everyone.

Now, with JCAR’s vote, there are currently no state mandates on public schools’ masking policies.

Changes may come 

In last Wednesday’s news conference, Pritzker and his team warned his announcement does not mean the pandemic is over, and said he may ramp up mitigations once again should the virus take a dramatic turn. 

“It’s the end of the statewide mask mandate,” Pritzker said of the planned lifting of the order. “But as we’ve all said, if things get very bad, I think we’ve seen this before with the onslaught of Delta and then Omicron (variants), boy, masks really helped us to keep infection rates, transmission rates down. So, there may come a time in the future when that happens.”

(With some reporting from Capitol News Illinois) 

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